Steve Vai, innovator of “stunt guitar” and mercurial, enigmatic solo artist. His unique playing style is rooted firmly in precision and infinite expression, and over five decades remains at the forefront of potent shred guitar. Appropriately, his first job as a guitarist came with Frank Zappa, who often referred to Vai, then aged eighteen, as his “little Italian virtuoso”, responsible for “impossible” and “stunt” guitars on his albums. Although he rose to critical acclaim with some solo work in the early 1980s, and as Yngwie Malmsteen’s replacement in Alcatrazz, it was with David Lee Roth that Steve Vai became a superstar.
Vai moved on from the David Lee Roth band in the late Eighties, working with Whitesnake and other artists, designing the iconic Ibanez JEM guitar, and continuing to record edge-of-your-seat shred guitar albums. Vai remains active to this day. He consistently produces music showcasing his unique, instantly recognizable guitar stylings. He even played on the theme for the multi-platinum video game phenomenon Halo.
What Guitars Does Steve Vai Use?
Steve Vai plays Ibanez JEM guitars which he designed and developed the model with Ibanez. He is known to have played a wide variety of Strat-style guitars throughout his career. Nevertheless, since the late 1980s, Vai has become synonymous with his Ibanez JEM EVO and FLO signature six-strings.
See the full list of Steve Vai guitars and gear below.
|1987 to Present
Although the JEM was not Steve Vai’s first guitar, it is by far the instrument most closely associated with the virtuoso. He designed the instrument closely with Ibanez as his fame increased, late in 1986, and emerged with the iconic JEM superstrat in ‘87.
Steve went to Ibanez with a “Chinese menu approach”, choosing the instrument’s specifications from a variety of categories to custom-build his ideal instrument. Playability and durability were at the forefront of Vai’s mind, having recently irreparably damaged one of his custom Tom Anderson “Green Monster”, detailed later in this article. Vai painstakingly evaluated tonewoods and weight, but knew in advance that he would be using the high-octane pickups of every shredder of the era, DiMarzio’s humbuckers.
Steve Vai’s favored Ibanez JEM, nicknamed “EVO”, came along in 1991. It remains his favorite guitar to this day. EVO features an alder body, maple neck, and ebony fretboard inlaid with Vai’s custom “vine” inlay. Although alder is a thoroughly standard wood for Strat-type guitars, Vai’s interpretation of the JEM’s body was radical for the time. Vai had used a Stratocaster previously, and liked the body, but said that “it always looked kinda pedestrian, lacking some sexiness.
So I put on more edges.” The sharper angles and longer bouts also increased the instrument’s playability, improving upper-fret access for all Vai’s high-note acrobatics. This was critical as the guitar featured a 24-fret neck, which was almost unheard of at the time. Of these frets, the last four are scalloped, Yngwie Malmsteen style, to allow Vai to “grab notes by the balls”. The cutaway on the original JEM was designed to perfectly fit Steve Vai’s enormous left hand, allowing unfettered access all the way up to the 24th fret.
Another unique feature of the Ibanez JEM was its approach to the whammy bar. Although Eddie Van Halen’s incendiary use of the Floyd Rose had made dive-bombs standard on Superstrat-style guitars, Vai wanted to run extreme pitch alteration the other way, too. Frustrated with his inability to bend notes upwards with the tremolo arm, Vai said he “took a hammer and a screwdriver, and I just banged down all the wood. Next thing I know, I have a floating tremolo system that was really floating. And they tell me this was the first one.”
The floating Floyd Rose became a standard feature of the JEM and all copycat shred machines, but the guitar’s innovations did not end there. Vai took to DiMarzio’s PAF-style pickups but wanted a quacking Strat-like sound as well. To allow for this, the original JEM came standard with HSH (Humbucker-Single Coil-Humbucker) pickup configuration. This used a DiMarzio PAF PRO (Humbucker) neck pickup in the neck position, a DiMarzio PAF PRO (Humbucker) bridge pickup in the bridge position, and a DiMarzio JEM (Single Coil) in the middle. Some of the original JEM run actually used dual humbuckers without a single coil pickup in the middle, and a five-way selector switch allowing Vai to split the humbucker.
Early production run JEM guitars, the JEM777 series, were serious shred machines. They had a maple neck, and came in MTV-friendly finishes like Loch Ness Green, Shocking Pink, and Desert Sun Yellow. Their body was basswood, not alder. The finishing touch for Vai’s design was something unique that no other brand would dream of copying. To do this, he added the iconic “monkey grip”, the hole in the guitar’s body that marks the JEM series to this day.
Steve insists that, had he not started playing the Ibanez JEM in the late Eighties, he would be a vastly different musician today. The JEM, he says, made him capable of capturing the idiosyncrasies of his otherworldly playing. The guitar was built to address shortfalls in the existing market that prevented Steve Vai from making the noise he heard in his head.
Various iterations of the JEM series have followed since 1987, including a switch to basswood in the 90s, updated DiMarzio pickups such as those found on EVO, the “Evolution” pickups, and DiMarzio “BREED” pickups in later models. Steve Vai even added his own blood to the paint mixture of the JEM2KDNA series, in a mildly concerning ratio of 8 parts paint to one part blood. Anniversary models and cheaper versions, with dot inlays rather than the vine inlay, followed, but Vai plays his own high-end custom jobs for records and live.
Steve’s number one JEM is still the 1991 “EVO” Jem, which he still tours with to this day. Modern EVO production models use a rosewood fingerboard instead of the ebony that graces Vai’s own instrument, but the fingerboard is still scalloped from frets 21 to 24.
The Ibanez Universe, a seven-string guitar developed by Steve Vai, is branded separately from the JEM series, but differs from the JEM in its lack of a monkey grip. For all other intents and purposes, however, the Universe is a seven-string take on Vai’s iconic Ibanez JEM. Ibanez introduced the Universe in 1990, and Vai occasionally uses it to record particularly heavy guitar parts on his solo albums.
1977 Fender “Sticker Strat” Stratocaster
|Blonde Covered in Stickers
|1977 to Present
Steve Vai’s “Sticker Strat” was his first-ever electric guitar. According to a post on Vai’s website, his mother gave him the money to buy this guitar when Vai was just sixteen. The story goes that Vai came home from school one day and found $175 woven between the strings of his beaten-up old acoustic guitar. He went straight to the local guitar store and bought this Stratocaster, which remained Vai’s number one electric throughout his tenure with Frank Zappa.
Vai and Zappa made modifications to this guitar themselves, including adding an Alembic preamp and changing its pickups. As can be seen in the picture above, the Stratocaster’s neck and middle pickup are single-coil pickups in cream and black, respectively. The bridge pickup is a high-output dual-rail humbucker, likely a DiMarzio. Vai, like many budding hard rock and metal players of the late 1970s, was partial to Larry DiMarzio’s custom-wound pickups and included them in many of his later guitar designs.
Finished in a transparent blonde finish, it’s this guitar featured an ash body with black pickguard. It had a three-way pickup selector, a thin “veneer” maple fretboard with clay dot inlays on its bolt-on maple neck, and Kluson tuners on the oversized CBS-era headstock. The Sticker Strat also features a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system. Steve Vai used this guitar extensively throughout his tenure with Frank Zappa, but upon his recruitment, for hard rock band Alcatrazz found it “too bright”. The guitar was mostly retired from live use around this time, but it regularly appears on Vai’s albums to this day when he needs a bright, quacking classic Stratocaster tone.
Charvel “Green Meanie”
|Green with Custom Stickers
|1983 to Present
When Steve Vai joined Alcatrazz, his trusty Stratocaster proved inappropriate for the band’s high-powered shredfests. In search of more output from his guitar and a darker, more authoritative tone, Vai turned to Grover Jackson (of Jackson Guitars’ fame). This Charvel guitar was equipped with two humbuckers, one each in the neck and bridge positions, and a single-coil pickup in the middle position. Although it was initially given to Vai on loan, it proved to be one of his most reliable guitars, and Vai considers it even more valuable than EVO, his number one Ibanez JEM.
Vai said of this guitar, “If I had to point to one guitar that is more valuable than EVO, it would be the Green Meanie. It was my go-to guitar through all the Alcatrazz, Dave Roth, and PAW days.”
Grover Jackson purchased the Charvel brand from its founder, Wayne Charvel, in 1978. The California-based guitar builder quickly amassed a reputation as the go-to builder for the burgeoning shred scene. Although Steve Vai was, with Frank Zappa, an influential figure in the development of shred guitar, it was in the wake of Eddie Van Halen’s playing on the early albums with David Lee Roth that the Superstrat became the default guitar of any self-respecting 80s shredder. Charvel had initially developed their reputation repairing out-of-warranty Stratocasters.
Charvel’s parts proved as good as, if not better than, Fender’s own, and they quickly branched out into building guitar bodies. The Stratocaster-shaped bodies and headstocks were adorned with humbuckers and, often, Floyd Rose tremolo systems to execute the wailing, squealing whammy bar acrobatics that were becoming popular at the time. This Charvel was different from many of its brethren in that it featured two humbuckers rather than just one.
This guitar was actually finished originally with a Fender-style three-tone sunburst, but Vai wanted something more distinctive. Wanting a guitar that looked as distinctive as his playing sounded, he opted for the neon green finish for which this guitar is famous. He also made another serious modification to Grover Jackson’s guitar. Steve chiseled away at its basswood body under its Floyd Rose bridge, creating a rudimentary floating tremolo, allowing for the wide-ranging whammy effects heard all over Vai’s 1980s playing. Its dual humbuckers were DiMarzio PAF Pros, hot-rodded versions of Gibson’s classic late-50s humbucker.
Steve Vai used this guitar extensively throughout his years in Alcatrazz and it was his main studio guitar during his time with David Lee Roth. In fact, it was the guitar he used on Disturbing The Peace and “virtually everything” on Roth’s seminal solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile. Today, this guitar is listed on Vai’s website as “on loan”.
Despagni Flame Guitar
|Flamed Custom Artwork
Although some might say the Day-Glo green finish on Steve Vai’s Charvel Superstrat was eye-catching enough, he wanted something even bolder to play alongside Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. After all, “Diamond” Dave was a legendary frontman with a larger-than-life onstage persona. How was a budding guitar hero to compete with the likes of Diamond Dave?
Steve Vai turned to his old friend Joe Despagni, a fellow Italian-American guitar enthusiast. Vai called Despagni his “very best friend”. The two grew up together, with Vai and Despagni often playing guitar together as teenagers, sharing licks and a love for Jimi Hendrix. Vai even credits Joe Despagni with inventing the term “shred” as applied to the guitar. Despagni described his guitars as “Jems”, which is why he named his signature line of guitars “JEM”.
Despagni’s passion was making “wild guitars” that were bold and bombastic. Steve knew there was no better luthier than his old buddy from Long Island to build him the MTV-friendly exotic guitars he needed to accompany David Lee Roth. Arguably the most famous result of their collaborations – which also included a guitar-shaped like Swiss cheese – was this immediately recognizable flame guitar.
The flame guitar made its first appearance in David Lee Roth’s video for “Goin’ Crazy”, and Vai used it on stage throughout his time with David Lee Roth.
The Despagni flame guitar featured a solitary open-coil humbucker in the bridge position and a bolt-on maple neck. Its maple fretboard was adorned with dot inlays and 24 frets. Its body material is unclear but it was likely alder or ash. It boasted a single volume control and a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system. Despagni also built Steve Vai a spare flame guitar, which Vai tuned to Drop D and used to play “Unchained” on tour with David Lee Roth. The second flame guitar was later fitted with an Ibanez JEM neck and given to Vai’s friend Thomas McRocklin. The original flame guitar was retired after his short-lived time with Whitesnake and was loaned to Rockwall in Hollywood.
Steve Vai eventually sold the guitar in 2017 to raise funds for Joe Despagni, who was battling the illness that took his life the following year.
You can see Steve Vai playing the legendary flame guitar in the below video or David Lee Roth’s hit single “Goin’ Crazy”.
Jackson “Crossroads” Guitar
One of Steve Vai’s most famous pop-culture appearances came in the 1986 film Crossroads, a coming-of-age drama inspired by the legend of Robert Johnson. Although Steve’s guitar playing is a far cry from the moody, grinding blues of Robert Johnson, he appears as the Devil’s own guitarist in the film’s final duel. Although the original script for Crossroads called for a slide-guitar battle in keeping with the film’s blues theme, director Walter Hill decided he wanted the film’s crescendo to feel like a boxing match. Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Steve Vai’s old buddy Frank Zappa were considered for the role, but ultimately Vai’s fashionable shredding won out.
Although Steve Vai appears as Ralph Macchio’s opponent in the duel, he actually played both guitar parts for the contest. In the film, Vai’s character, upon failing to replicate the intricate neo-classical phrasing of Macchio’s character, throws his guitar to the ground. For this scene, Steve Vai had Grover Jackson build him a copy of his red Jackson specifically for the ground-pounding. In fact, Grover built several!
Guitar World in 2001 performed some truly impressive investigative reporting in a bid to uncover the identity of this sparkling red Superstrat. They revealed that the guitar was fitted not with Steve’s favored DiMarzios, but with Jackson’s own high-output ceramic pickups. It featured a J-90C in the bridge and an Alnico J-80, with dark magnets and a glossy sheen perfectly suited to Vai’s role in the film.
Grover Jackson confirmed that the guitar’s body, like many actual Stratocasters, was swamp ash, with a quartersawn maple neck finished with gunstock oil. It used a woodscrew-top-mounted Floyd Rose tremolo system, albeit lacking the carved-out “lion’s claw” cavity beneath the bridge. Curiously, Steve Vai never used the original Crossroads guitar on a recording, not even to record the famous solo for the film. That honor went to his “Green Meanie”, one of Vai’s other Grover Jackson-built Superstrats.
Steve Vai has “no recollection” of who he gave any of his Crossroads guitars to, but speculated that he may have gifted the original instrument to Arlen Roth, Ralph Macchio, or Walter Hill. Regardless of who inherited the instrument from Vai, today it resides at the Hard Rock Cafe in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the same state where Robert Johnson was said to sell his soul to the Devil.
Timetable Showing Each Guitar Steve Vai Has Played Throughout His Career
|1977 “Sticker Strat” Stratocaster
|Blonde Covered in Stickers
|1977 to Present
|Green with Custom Stickers
|1983 to Present
|Flamed Custom Artwork
|1987 to Present
Steve Vai Amplifier Overview
Steve Vai’s high-powered tone in the 80s came, like many of his peers, courtesy of 100-watt Marshall amplifiers. The searing, legato runs of his work with David Lee Roth and Alcatrazz were prime examples of high-gain 1980s lead guitar tone. Ever the tinkerer, Vai later collaborated with Carvin amplifiers to build a signature amp to his exacting specifications. Let’s take a look at Steve’s amplifiers and why he chooses to use them.
Marshall JMP 2203 Mk II Master Lead 100w
One of the defining sounds of Steve Vai’s career, and of 1980s shred guitar, is the molten lead tone from David Lee Roth’s 1986 album Eat ‘Em and Smile. Much of this guitar tone came courtesy of Vai’s technique, of course, but key to the tight, articulate sound of Vai’s playing in the late Eighties was his use of this customized Marshall Super Lead amplifier.
The Marshall Super Lead, for many rock and metal players, is not an amplifier, but the amplifier. The sound of a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead with the volume turned up defined classic hard rock and metal tone for decades. The 2203 model, as Vai played during his time with David Lee Roth, was introduced to the market in the mid-1970s. Models sold in the American market used 6550 tubes as opposed to the warmer, more organic-sounding EL34 tubes of Marshall’s British amps. However, Steve was as prone to altering his guitar amps as his guitars, and consequently customized this Marshall to suit his needs at the time.
This Marshall amp was a gift from Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens to Ted Templeman, who produced the early Van Halen records as well as Eat ‘Em and Smile. Steve Vai took the amp to Lee Jackson, who was then making a name for himself modifying Marshall amps for the biggest names in rock. The modified Marshall featured an extra gain stage, frequency adjust control, effects loop & master volume. It featured KT88 quad-matched power tubes and “hand-selected pre-amp tubes to Steve’s liking”. Vai himself has not specified what exactly these tubes are, but his hand-picked preamp tubes of choice for his signature amp are EL34s, so these may well have been his preference for the Marshall.
Carvin Legacy Steve Vai Signature Amp
According to this Rig Rundown from Premier Guitar, Steve Vai’s favored amp for recording these days is his signature model from Carvin. Vai’s relationship with Carvin amps actually dates back to his time with Frank Zappa. When Vai joined Zappa’s band, he began playing his first-ever amplifier stack, the Carvin XB-100.
Although like many of his shredding peers Steve Vai enjoyed the high-output offerings of Marshall amplifiers and their various clones, he came to dislike the “abrasive” tone of many conventional metal amps. In an attempt to derive more melody and note definition out of his amps, he worked with Carvin to develop an amplifier with “a friendly sound with a bit of edge to it”. He wanted a warm, fuzzy top end without the brittle, harsh tones often found in modern amps, and a compressed, loose bottom end sound. In pursuit of a clean, direct signal path without excessive gain staging to eat at the guitar sound, Steve Vai returned to the Carvin fold in 1999 to build an amp worthy of his towering musical ability. To date, Vai has collaborated with Carvin on three signature amplifiers, using each extensively both live and in the studio to this day.
The most recent iteration of the Carvin Legacy, the Legacy 3, is a lunchbox-sized amp that churns out 100 watts of all-tube power thanks to four EL34 preamp tubes. The amplifier also allows power switching down to fifty or fifteen watts. This amplifier boasts three channels, one for clean, one for overdrive, and one that provides a gain boost to the overdrive channel, effectively offering a distortion pedal-type circuit built into the amp. The clean channel’s independent controls include bass, mids, treble, volume, and presence, while the twin overdrive channels share EQ controls, but have independent volume, gain and presence knobs.
Steve Vai designed this amplifier to provide the effervescent cleans and high-harmonic saturated tone of his solo work. Steve Vai has used Carvin’s Legacy series for virtually all his studio and live work since 1999. Vai often stacks up to ten of these amplifiers in his amp rack on tour.
He uses the “crunch” channel primarily for rhythm playing, enjoying its “not too distorted” sound. For lead work, Vai uses the third channel, which he describes as having “a lot of hair on it”.
Steve Vai Pedals and Effects Overview
These days, Steve Vai prefers the compact convenience of Fractal’s Axe-FX unit both live and in the studio, but over the years he has taken advantage of a variety of guitar pedals. Vai often experimented with his pedalboard, using a variety of overdrives, distortions, and modulation effects, swapping them out mid-tour and from one project to the next. Like many celebrity guitarists, Steve Vai eventually worked on signature lines of guitar effects, including his “Bad Horsie” Wah and an Ibanez distortion pedal. Let’s take a look at Steve Vai’s choice of pedals over the decades.
Overdrive & Distortion
Steve Vai, during his time with Alcatrazz, was using the then-new Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive. This robust yellow box was a popular alternative to the Tube Screamers and MXR Distortion Plus pedals often found on metal guitarists’ pedalboards. He used the SD-1 up until 1985. Vai eventually moved on to the SD-1’s more advanced older brother, the OD-1X, using it as a boost in the front end of an already-distorted amplifier. Vai also took to a Waza Craft special edition of the SD-1 in later years.
Vai also used a Robert Keeley-modded Ibanez Tubescreamer, a TS9DX with four knobs and a protruding footswitch. For a harsher, more saturated sound, Steve Vai initially took a shine to Boss’ DS-1 distortion, once more turning to Robert Keeley to do his Seeing Eye mod to the pedal. Typically, Vai ran the DS-1 into his modded Tubescreamer.
For a while, Steve Vai used the Ibanez Jemini distortion pedal, a custom pedal he designed with the Japanese brand. The Jemini appears to be an attempt on Vai’s part to capture his dual-distortion-pedal approach in a single stompbox, which boasts two footswitches.
Phaser, Flanger, and Chorus
Steve Vai was no stranger to modulation effects, often using early phase, flange, and chorus to spice up his clean playing and add some movement and depth to solos.
With Alcatrazz, Vai used Mutron’s Bi-Phase rack unit but later took to MXR’s era-defining Phase 90. An interview with Thomas Nordegg, Vai’s guitar tech, revealed that Steve was for a time using the EVH signature flanger from MXR, placed last in his signal chain before the front of the amp.
Vai used Boss’ CH-1 Super Chorus as part of his effects loop to add color to his tone and eventually took to Red Witch’s Medusa Chorus and Tremolo pedal for the same effect. Vai mostly uses subtle chorus on his bubbling clean sound, but in the 1980s he used the chorus to thicken his distorted tone.
Cry Baby Wah
Although Steve Vai did use Dunlop’s industry-standard Cry Baby wah for a time and owns an original Cry Baby from the 1960s, he eventually collaborated with Morley to design a wah of his own. The “Bad Horsie” was released in 1996, featuring switchless operation, an electro-optical design without a physical wah potentiometer, and an aggressive sweep that Vai himself used on countless recordings since.
Although Steve Vai tried – and hated – early effects processing units, describing them as “toys” that “sounded like crap”, he was eventually won over by Fractal’s high-end processing unit. Fractal’s effects processor is Steve Vai’s go-to live effects unit these days, although in the studio he still prefers the fine-tuning available with his wide arsenal of guitar pedals.
Vai described the process of finding his preferred tone with the Axe-FX as “almost like rocket science,” but the devoted tinkerer eventually coaxed his preferred tones from the processor.
Vai actually uses his Axe-FX in the demo video for his Legacy 3 signature amp, as can be seen in the below video.
Steve Vai was born to Italian parents in New York State and claims his first musical epiphany came not from the guitar, but from the piano in his parents’ living room. Upon noticing that the notes got higher as you moved to the right and lower as you moved to the left, he was “flooded with the instinctual realization of how music was created and how it worked from a theoretical standpoint”.
Not long afterward, he saw a kid at grade school playing guitar, describing it as “the coolest thing I had ever seen”, and took to the instrument like a duck to water. Helped no doubt by lessons from no less a guitarist than Joe Satriani, Vai jumped headfirst into playing guitar. Practicing up to nine hours a day, taking cues from his heroes Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jimmy Page, and even turning his attention to the jazz-fusion stylings of Allan Holdsworth and Ali Di Meloa, he quickly attained a supernatural level of virtuosity.
When David Lee Roth parted ways with the brothers Van Halen after the smash hit album 1984, the question on many musicians’ minds was how Roth could possibly replace Edward Van Halen himself. After all, Van Halen had reinvented rock guitar with the band’s debut record and continued setting the world ablaze with each subsequent release. Who could hold a candle to the mighty two-handed tapping of Eddie? The answer, of course, was Steve Vai.
Vai stepped up as the lead guitarist in an all-star virtuoso ensemble fronted by David Lee Roth. Massive commercial success with Roth’s debut solo album Eat Em And Smile followed. Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski remarked at the time that “Steve Vai’s guitar wizardry is so profound that in earlier times he would have been burned as a witch”. Around this time, he featured in the guitar-centric film Crossroads as the guitar player for the Devil.
Furthermore, modern times have seen Mr. Vai as one of the most exemplary six-string slingers of all time cementing his prowess with only so many honors, earning a three Grammy Awards tally and twelve nominations on his own. There’s no room for doubt, that Steve Vai is one of the few standing guitar heroes these days.
My name is Chris and I’ve had a passion for music and guitars for as long as I can remember. I started this website with some of my friends who are musicians, music teachers, gear heads, and music enthusiasts so we could provide high-quality guitar and music-related content.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13 years old and am an avid collector. Amps, pedals, guitars, bass, drums, microphones, studio, and recording gear, I love it all.
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My background is in Electrical Engineering, earning a Bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University. With my engineering experience, I’ve developed as a designer of guitar amplifiers and effects. A true passion of mine, I’ve designed, built, and repaired a wide range of guitar amps and electronics. Here at the Guitar Lobby, our aim is to share our passion for Music and gear with the rest of the music community.